Shutter Island and Inception share more than just Leonardo DiCaprio. Both films blend the conscious and subconscious worlds in such a way as to question what reality is. To many this issue is answered by what some philosophers label “naïve realism;” the world that our senses perceive is the world as it really exists. During a guest lecture this past week, a student repeated raised the question of how we know what we know. More than simply an attempt to get the teacher off the subject, this seemed to be a legitimate existential angst. Religious studies has a way of doing this to people.
Even physicists of the twenty-first century are increasingly forced to what looks more like science fiction than apparent reality to explain our world. The quantum world is a surreal environment and as scientists close in on a theory of everything, those of us who live in the macro world wonder where reality begins and fantasy ends. Perhaps the concept of reality itself is flawed. We live with many ineluctable truths; we function biologically, live, grow, and die. Beyond that we have no way of knowing, but we believe. And during that lifespan we experience both conscious and subconscious input. The closer we look at reality the more it appears to fracture.
Perhaps that is why movies such as Shutter Island and Inception have been so popular. Scorsese and Nolan have widely differing styles, but both are relegated to a world where apparent reality doesn’t seem to be enough. Only so much of life fits in a laboratory. The vast majority of it is simply experienced, whether wakefully or while asleep. Each at the time feels like real reality. Inception seconds the question raised by Shutter Island: what is reality, and, perhaps more importantly, what will we choose to do with it?